50 Years Ago

Dueling statements in the Times

By Bill Donovan

Special to the Times

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At first glance, people who picked up the March 26, 1964 issue of the Navajo Times had to wonder if the paper's editors were out of their minds by publishing an article that so blatantly attacked the chairman of the tribe, Raymond Nakai.

Who would have thought that any tribal newspaper, much less the Navajo Times, would print an article accusing the tribe's top official of "trying to destroy and tear down the structure of the Navajo tribal government."

But the Times did and why they did it was the subject of a lot of talk within the tribal government 50 years ago.

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It all began in early December 1963 when Frankie Howard, a member of the Navajo Tribal Council and a bitter opponent of Nakai, came by the office of the Times and presented Marshall Tome, the paper's editor, with a petition he had been passing around. By December, he had collected more than 500 signatures.

The petition centered around the growing debate over the future of Norman Littell as the tribe's general counsel. Nakai was continuing to try to fire him but the majority of the Council - the so-called Old Guard - was continuing to support him, in part because Nakai hated him so much.

It was obvious to any reader of the Times in those days that the paper was pro-Council because it was the Council that was preventing Nakai from firing Chet MacRorie and Tome, the paper's two editors. But the paper over the past few months tried to report on the controversy as fairly as possible by staying out of it themselves and just printing articles that had been published in off-reservation papers about the controversy.

So when Howard presented the petition to Tome, he didn't know what to do with it. MacRorie would say later that there was a fear that putting the information about the petition in the paper would lead to some form of retaliation by Nakai - even the possibility that he would shut the paper down.

So the paper just sat on it for more than three months, despite pressure from the anti-Nakai faction to get it in the paper.

By March 1964 however, the issue had finally made it to the outside press and Nakai found himself being forced to issue a response. When Nakai's people presented the response to the Times, saying they expected the paper to print it in full, MacRorie used this as a justification to print a copy of a letter that Howard had sent to Nakai which outlined all of his objections to the Nakai administration.

In a letter sent to Nakai on March 15, Howard accused Nakai of trying to control the paper.

"You are trying your level best to prohibit the disclosure of my petition in the Navajo Times," he wrote, saying that the petition that was passed around the previous December contained "some grave and serious charges against you."

He pointed out that he gave a copy of the petition to Tome and it had yet to be in the paper.

"You are still using censorship," Howard said.

Howard's letter not only made it to the paper but was printed in full on page 1 and continued on another page. Howard didn't mince his words in his letter to Nakai.

"It is very unfortunate that the integrity of your so-called peyote administration is falling apart and deteriorating before your term of office has expired. Why is this so? The fact is that it is happening because of your own blunders," Howard wrote.

Nakai's reply also didn't mince words.

"This administration has not failed and is not failing," he wrote in his response. "It is a recognized success. This I can prove to you and you cannot find means to prove otherwise."

Nakai never mentioned the Navajo Times in his response, leaving the question in the air in the minds of many readers about whether he and his people were active in their attempt to keep the petition out of the paper or whether the paper failed to print it because of fear of retaliation by Nakai.

The Howard letter took up almost two tabloid pages in the Times, as did Nakai's response. It did create a storm of controversy and probably sold a lot of papers.

And while the paper's editors devoted that much coverage to the controversy, MacRorie decided to let the letter and the response do the talking and didn't try to do an editorial to provide readers his perspective of what was going on.

Tome, however, probably in an attempt to appease Nakai or maybe because he thought the analogy was interesting put this in his Smoke Puffs column that week: Howard A. Nez of Shiprock visited Window Rock and stopped by the Times.

"Here's something for our Councilmen and Councilwoman. A convicted slayer, Jack Ruby (the man who killed the man accused of assassinating John F. Kennedy) fired his head attorney, Melvin Belli on March 18 but our tribal government can't fire their head attorney."

Nez added that he has received a lot of letters from Navajos about the controversy with 1,000 of them being pro-Nakai to every one that was against him.

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